Jordan Rudess says there is one type of Dream Theater fan — a lifer.
"If you're a fan, you're still passionate about it," he says. "If you're not into Dream Theater, then you don't know about it." He also says that there's a huge crossover between people who are into technology and Dream Theater fans, adding, "They're very intelligent people."
For 30 years, Dream Theater has served as a relentless progressive metal force that, over the course of 14 studio albums, has been more or less a band built on dreaming both big and loud.
Rudess, who entered the Juilliard School of Music at the age of 9, joined forces with Dream Theater's John Petrucci, James LaBrie, John Myung, and Mike Mangini in 1999, and since has toured the world with his self-curated Bach to Rock performances and developed a software development collective for musicians.
Dream Theater is currently in the throes of their first tour in support of Distance Over Time, a follow-up to 2016's The Astonishing — a sweeping dystopian rock-opera and an album that Rudess admits continues to be a polarizing moment for Dream Theater fans. The tour also serves as a 20th-anniversary performance honoring 1999's Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory — the band's first concept album.
Rudess spoke with Metro Times about how an Emerson, Lake & Palmer record provided the creative detour he needed and how the stress of having to search for 20-year-old floppy discs led to a fresh perspective.
Metro Times: Dream Theater is straight off of its first show of the tour — how'd it feel?
Jordan Rudess: There are two or three years between when we kick off a tour. So I was trying to think back [to] what it felt like when we were getting the last tour together, and when it came to the first day it's definitely intense. I mean, I guess part of it is that we take everything so seriously. It's not like we're a group that kind of jams on some rock music. It's easy to kind of forget that in the past it was just as intense.
MT: You are a huge improviser and yet Dream Theater's style is packaged so tightly. Is it a challenge to harness that inclination, or is there room for you to experiment?
Rudess: I'm probably the most improvisatory in the group as far as when we're playing live, like within my part. Last night we were playing "Through Her Eyes" and "Through My Words," both of those are different versions of the same kind of thing off of Scenes From a Memory. And in my piano part, it's really great — it's a mellow, beautiful song and I've never played the same way twice. I totally go with the flow of the way I feel in the moment and just kind of do it. And nobody else really does that. But I can play around it and just kind of be inspired, and that to me is so important. It has to feel like it gives it a looseness within the structure of Dream Theater.
MT: You're a classically trained pianist and it's clear when you hear your performances that there is major crossover in technique when approaching the intricacies of metal. When did you make the choice to pursue a project like Dream Theater?
Rudess: When I was 9 years old. I entered the Juilliard School of New York City and I stayed there until I was 19. I was on the path to being a classical pianist. One day, a friend of mine brought over an Emerson, Lake & Palmer album, Tarkus, and I listened over and over again. And it really kind of like led me down the path that kind of showed me how powerful keyboards could be.
MT: In addition to being an anniversary tour, the band will be supporting its 14th record, Distance Over Time, which you recorded at Yonderbarn in upstate New York. Was it strange cohabitating with your bandmates?
Rudess: It was a little scary to me at first because I thought what would it be like going to this place and hanging out with a bunch of mature men living together. But it actually ended up being a lot of fun and very productive, and we got our work done even quicker than we thought we would. We basically booked about two months to be up there writing music — not the recording process, but just the writing process. And in under a month, we had everything written and we didn't rush, we just did it. Instead of leaving there and going to another studio to do all the tracking, we decided that we would just stay there because the vibe was so good and we were having so much fun. We wanted to capture the spirit of what we kind of established.
MT: Dream Theater will be playing Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory in its entirety, which is the first album you recorded with the band. Has revisiting the album meant flexing muscle
Rudess: There are so many different sounds that I use. Everything from orchestral sounds, to band sounds, to traditional keyboard sounds and effects. And so a lot of it is a lot of my job, besides just playing the notes, it's finding all the sounds I programmed previously. Where are they? Where are those instruments? Where is the data? Was it on a floppy disk? What was the technology at the time because I've got to resurrect it or re-create it.
MT: Within that rediscovery period, were you able to approach the music with new eyes and ears?
Rudess: Well, what was interesting is last night when we finally hit the stage after all the preparation and I was playing Scenes From a Memory, I could have been back to whenever we played it last. It felt like I was connected with the last time we did it. I mean for me in my world, what I enjoyed doing is after that initial process of going, "Oh my god, where are the sounds?" when they were basically assembled, I could go into my instruments and say, "You know what? I have time, I'm going to bring it up a notch. I'm going to make it even better." I think, in everybody's case, we have learned so much over the years of doing this that we're able to kind of up our game and make it better each time.
Dream Theater will perform at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 2 at The Fillmore; 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-961-5451; thefillmoredetroit.com. Tickets are $35+.
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